Sleep Apnea: What Is It and How Do You Know If You Have It?

February 14, 2018

Sleep Apnea: What Is It and How Do You Know If You Have It?

By Dr. Kevin Carlson, board-certified internist and geriatrician

Fatigue is one of the most common complaints of my patients. When diagnosing the cause of fatigue, I ask about the quantity and quality of sleep the patient gets. If the sleep is disrupted or unrefreshing, sleep apnea is often the cause. Other symptoms of sleep apnea are morning headaches, dry mouth, and snoring.

The only way to diagnose sleep apnea is with a sleep study that can be done at home or in a sleep lab. The treatment depends on the patient and the severity of the problem, but may include weight loss, avoiding alcohol and sedatives before bed, change of sleep position, use of a dental device that moves the jaw forward, or a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.

Not wanting to use a CPAP device is the most frequent reason given by my patients for not being tested or treated, but newer machines are much smaller and quieter than the ones of the past. Additionally, there are many different mask sizes and styles to ensure a more comfortable fit.

Other treatment options are available in addition to the ones mentioned above. It is very important to diagnose and treat sleep apnea, not only because it is the only way to remedy fatigue, but because it reduces the risk of severe medical complications such as hypertension, stroke, depression, and even dementia.

When breathing is halted during sleep, the brain is deprived of air, often multiple times per hour. Over time, cumulative damage to the vessels and brain tissue occurs. If you think you may have sleep apnea, please discuss your concerns with your physician. If you have been diagnosed with sleep apnea, find a treatment that works for you and stick with it. You will be glad that you did!

Dr. Kevin Carlson is a board certified internist and geriatrician in Columbia, Maryland.

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